One of the UK’s largest telescopes can be found, surprisingly, in North London, and there are now regular tours of the observatory. Operated by University College London (UCL), the observatory was founded in 1925 and is one of the best-equipped astronomical facilities for student training and research in the UK.
Despite its London location, they still manage to get serious science done through the background glare of the city lights — in 2014, a supernova in the galaxy M82 was discovered by four undergraduate students assisted by Dr Steve Fossey, leading to a global scramble to acquire confirming images.
They are now resuming term-time tours of the Observatory on Friday evenings.
Visitors will be given a short introduction to the Observatory by one of the guides, then divided into groups for a guided tour of the telescopes and facilities. During the tour season, only about 1 evening in 4 is clear, winds or even wispy clouds can prevent observing the stars. Nonetheless, if the weather permits, visitors will normally be given the opportunity to view the sky through the Fry 8-inch refractor.
The open evenings will take place roughly fortnightly, on Fridays during UCL’s autumn and winter terms, with tours at 6pm and 8pm, each lasting around 90 minutes. They note that while the tours are also open to children, the content and nature of the tours (including negotiating some steep, open-tread stairs) mean they may not be suitable for all children younger than 7 years old.
Each term, there’s also a one-off Saturday-evening tour for visitors unable to attend on Fridays for, in particular, religious reasons – Dec 4th for the current term.
To book free tickets for a tour, go here.
To get to the Observatory if using public transport, then the nearest bus stop next to the observatory on Route 113 which you should catch northwards from the Northern line at Hendon Central tube station (and when leaving, head northward to Edgware tube station, you can’t go south). Alternatively, it’s about a 10-minute walk from Mill Hill Broadway station – along the Broadway, into Hartley Avenue, then along the busy bypass road.
As the Observatory is a teaching and research establishment, not a tourist attraction it is not generally open to visitors, except on these special tours.
Bring cash as well, as there’s a small souvenir stall selling collectables, and for donations.
More public tours will be added to the schedule for 2022 dates.